The first thing Len noticed was the floor. That was always the first thing these days, her eyes constantly scanning the places her feet had to touch. Unless she jumped about four feet, there wasn’t a single clean tile to step on.
She didn’t remember noticing them last year—all the streaks and brown bits littering the hallway—but that seemed impossible. Had she simply not cared?
“Move it, loser,” someone muttered behind her. She didn’t recognize the voice, but it didn’t matter. Len was used to the insults. She didn’t take her eyes off the floor.
“Weirdo,” the kid said. “Seriously, hurry up. Varsity’s already started.”
Len’s chest cramped as she tried to decide where to step.
“Come on!” Someone else groaned, and Len forced herself to move up in line, one foot, then two. The sole of her boot tracked through a dark brown streak, and she told herself it wasn’t dog shit. Someone else would have noticed if it was dog shit, right? And why didn’t anyone else seem to care?
The slick squeaks of soles on hardwood echoed from the gym. It’s just mud, Len thought again, repeating the word like a mantra. Mud, mud, mud.
“Three dollars, please. Four if you want the raffle.”
Len blinked at the librarian. When had he started taking ticket money? And what was Len even doing here? She didn’t like volleyball, not really.
The librarian held out his hand. “You coming in, Len?”
“I—uh . . .” Heat speckled her face and neck. Had she always had such trouble making decisions? She turned to leave when the memory of why she’d come to the game jolted her. The phone, ringing, ringing. Seven p.m. on the dot. Fauna.
Len couldn’t go back home. Not yet.
“Jesus, Lemon,” said the first voice. “You in or out?”
Len shoved her cash onto the table and pushed her way into the gym.
Sage started forward, even though there was no way the ball would reach her. Probably wouldn’t even make it over the net. That hollow thud meant a too-slack hand, a poor serve. Still, she crouched low, weight on the balls of her fire-orange Asics, in case she needed to sprawl.
The ball kissed the net, skimmed a few feet sideways along the top then dropped back on the opponent’s side, sending Sage’s bench into near-hysterics. Sage’s Southview Rams hadn’t defeated their hometown rival Asheville High in three seasons, and that missed serve kept her team alive.
Go time. Sage walked back to the server’s box as the scoreboard ticked 13-14. Varsity matches went best out of five, and this one had gone to the last game. Match point for Asheville. Again.
Kayla Davis ran up to her. “You got this, Sage,” she said. “You got it.”
Sage nodded. The line judge tossed her the ball.
Coach Craig held up four fingers beneath his clipboard, but Sage wouldn’t have needed the signal. She knew Asheville’s weak-side hitter was just that—weak. Even if she hadn’t studied the game tape for the past three nights, a few plays into the match revealed who was most likely to shank her serve.
From the bench, her teammates shouted themselves horse.
“Pound it, Sage!”
“They can’t touch you!”
“Come on, baby!”
Sage twirled the volleyball in her hands, then bounced it once, her ritual. She heard the cheers, but also didn’t, like a person knows she’s breathing without thinking about it. She extended the ball onto her left palm.
If she mis-served, her rivals won.
The referee whistled, signaling her.
Sage stared down the opposing setter, making her think she was the target. Then she tossed the ball and hammered a topspin directly at position four. The girl barely had time to protect her face before the ball hit her elbow and ricocheted out of bounds.
The Rams’ bench almost lost its mind. On the court, Sage performed the celebratory Ace ritual with her teammates—two stomps and a clap—but her face stayed stone flat. The ref tossed her the ball. Coach Craig held up another four.
This time Sage backed against the wall. She tossed the ball high, then leapt to meet it in a jump serve—more intimidating than her topspin, but not as fast. Asheville’s receiver got a better handle on it, but the ball shot into the net and dropped to the ground before her setter could even touch it.
15-14, Rams advantage. Unlike the first four games that went to twenty-five points, the fifth game of a match only went to fifteen. But you had to win by two. This was it, then. Or could be. Sage walked back to the service line.
“Timeout!” Asheville’s coach called. Kayla slung her arm around Sage as they joined Southview’s huddle. “You got this,” her best friend said, squeezing her shoulders. “I know you got it.” Sage allowed a tight nod.
“One point and they’re back in it!” Coach quieted the bench with a look. He pointed at Sage. “They’re trying to ice you,” he said, like she didn’t know. “Hit six this time.”
Sage made a face. “Four’s shanked it twice. I’m in her head.”
“She knows you’re coming for her. She’ll be ready.”
“Doesn’t matter,” said Sage. “She can’t hit it.”
Coach raised his eyebrows, daring her to continue arguing. Last year Sage had ignored a call, and Coach had benched her, star player or no. It probably cost the team the game. “Six,” he repeated. The whistle blew.
Sage held his gaze to let him know she disagreed, then cracked her neck and walked back to the server’s box.
“Just one more, Sagey.” Ella Cruz smacked her hip as she trotted past.
Only Ella could get away with calling her Sagey. But then, nobody fed her sets like Ella.
Sage picked up the ball, the team’s energy thrumming though her. Most of her teammates, good as they were, wouldn’t trade positions with her for the world. She sensed this instinctively, the same way she intuited when a player was going to tip almost before the player did. With the game in the balance, her teammates didn’t want the serve. Didn’t want the risk of failure. That was the difference between Sage Zendasky and the rest: these were the moments she felt most alive.
Sage slapped the ball with her palm, her mouth twitching a faint smile just to mess with Asheville’s players. This was why she showed up early to their three-hour practices and why she often stayed late. Why she played in an off-season travel league. Why she spent practically all of her free time with a volleyball in her hands.
The whistle shrilled. Sage tossed the ball . . .
and crushed it.
Asheville’s back middle—position six—dug the serve perfectly. Sage had a heartbeat of indignation—told you Craig—while she raced to position in the back row. She sunk down as Asheville’s hitter connected with the ball.
“Me, ME!” Lyz Greer called, causing Sage and Nina Marto to scissor away from her.
“THREE!” Ella shouted, flipping a short set to the middle. Kayla drilled it, but Position Six made another perfect dig. Five times the ball exchanged sides, Asheville’s hitters clearly avoiding Sage.
Come on, thought Sage. One time.
“Short!” screamed Ella, as Asheville’s middle flicked the ball over the blockers. Hannah Wainwright dove backwards, managing to punch it up with her fist, but the ball rocketed towards the back wall.
Asheville’s bench erupted as Sage took off. The ball was nearly a body length in front of her, but high, and she just might . . .
the wall . . .
She sprawled instinctually, hurling her fist upwards. It connected, sending the ball sailing back to the court.
“MEEEE!” called Nina.
Sage heard Nina the moment before her momentum took her into the wall. Concrete met her cheek as her ankle turned awkwardly. She cursed, but pushed herself back to position to see Nina’s free ball cross the net.
Asheville was disorganized, clearly thinking they’d won the point when Hannah shanked. They managed to get the ball back in three, but with an easy free pass right to Sage. Ella’s eyes lit as she set Sage’s perfect pass to Kayla.
Asheville formed a double block, but Sage saw the hole behind it.
“Q!” She shouted the code letter. “Kayla, Q!”
Kayla attacked the net like she hadn’t heard, but at the last second pulled back her swing and tipped the ball into the gap behind the blockers.
The ball floated—movie-style-slow—and dropped to the floor.
“AHHHHHHHHH!” Sage screamed so her heart wouldn’t burst. Her teammates echoed her, high-fiving and jumping on one another. Kayla thrust her chest out, nodding like a pro-footballer while Ella punched the air.
“You!” Sage said, rushing Kayla. “That was perfect!”
“YOU!” Kayla said, shaking her. “I thought we were dead. Did you hit the wall?”
“Yeah, she did,” said Ella, slapping her back. “She be crazy.”
Sage smiled, light headed from the high of victory. Hannah raced toward her, and forgetting her ankle, Sage leapt to meet her in a shoulder bump. As she peaked, she registered it all simultaneously: Kayla’s whoops; her teammates converging; Coach’s wide and seldom-shown grin.
The thrill of it twitched her heart as she reconnected with the ground . . .